Booker longlist reading: Autumn by Ali Smith

by Sunita

I’d been looking forward to reading this novel for months and the Booker longlist gave me the push I needed. It has been described as the “first Brexit novel,” and it is that, but it is much more as well. Liz and Teresa have written terrific posts about the book and you should definitely go and read them. Teresa notes the dreamlike quality of the (excellent) writing, and Liz draws attention to the way the emphasis on the artist Pauline Boty’s collage style is reflected in the novel itself, something I hadn’t noticed as I was reading but should have.

I’m a pretty literal reader, even of writing that is more abstract and experimental. What stood out for me in the book were the different relationships and the context in which Elisabeth was navigating a challenging life of academic precarity, apparently without much of a support structure. She and her mother love each other but they don’t seem to have a lot in common, and although she has renewed her important relationship with Daniel, it’s temporary and somewhat one-sided as he nears the end of his 100+ years.

Smith is an amazing writer, and the way she incorporates Brexit and the current political climate is somehow both direct and subtle, in the sense that it’s very present but it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. There is a chilling sequence where Elisabeth is applying for a passport renewal and the post office clerk behaves like someone out of 1984, or Terry Gilliam’s movie, Brazil:

Then he puts the booth photographs down in front of him. He screws his mouth over to one side. He shakes his head.

What? Elisabeth says.

No, I think it’s all right, he says. The hair. It has to be completely clear of your eyes.

It is completely clear of my eyes, Elisabeth says. It’s nowhere near my eyes.

It also can’t be anywhere near your face, the man says.

It’s on my head, Elisabeth says. That’s where it grows. And my face is also attached to my head.

Witticism, the man says, will make not a jot of difference to the stipulations which mean you can, in the end, be issued a passport, which you will need before you are permitted to go anywhere not in this island realm. In other words. Will get you. Nowhere.

I felt as if the very act of wanting a passport was grounds for suspicion, as if someone who wanted to be able to travel was a Remainer to be scrutinized. There are more overt signs of Brexit as well, such as the fences that emerge suddenly on a traditional public footpath, or the “GO HOME” graffiti painted on a house. But people resist: Elisabeth insists on submitting her passport application with that photo, she refuses to stop walking on the path, and someone paints “WE ARE ALREADY HOME THANK YOU” below the original graffiti.

The novel is firmly situated in the UK, but like all great fiction its message resonates beyond its immediate context. Americans, Europeans, and even Indians (where the Hindu fundamentalists have been ascendant for the last two decades) will recognize the social and cultural divisiveness her mother is fed up with:

Her mother sits down on the churned-up ground near the fence.

I’m tired, she says.

It’s only two miles, Elisabeth says.

That’s not what I mean, she says. I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more.

The storyline is anchored by Elisabeth’s relationship to Daniel, which is bittersweet because Daniel seems to be entering his final phase of life. Elisabeth reads to him and her visits provide the settings for flashback sequences to her childhood. Daniel is both a father-figure and a window to a wider world in which her artistic aspirations can flourish. It seems fitting that a never-married, half-British World War II refugee is the one who introduces Elisabeth to an under-appreciated British woman Pop Artist who draws inspiration from and memorializes one of the great political scandals of the postwar UK era.

I tried to read this novel slowly in order to savor the language and appreciate its depth and complexity, but I kept returning to it and finished it in a couple of days. Despite the despair, there is also humor, warmth, and a fierce advocacy for the power of human connection in this story. I can’t wait for the next installment of the quartet. If Autumn doesn’t make the Booker shortlist I’ll be shocked.